Thursday, May 5, 2011


SATURDAY MAY 7TH, meet 11.20 am, north side of Berwick Station

Join us for our 3rd Forest Walk & rally co-organised with Keep Our Forests Public (member of National Forests Campaign), to celebrate our Sussex public forest estate.
Bring a picnic, or you can probably buy food at the shop by Berwick station.

On this walk we will explore the beautiful Abbots Wood and nearby woods, If the bluebells are as late as they were last year we will catch the last of a wonderful display. 

En route to Abbots Wood we will walk on paths recently re-opened as the result of action by the Ramblers Association and see examples of the way landowners attempt to deny access to the public. We are likely to see blocked paths, paths that have been ploughed up and signs that have been removed or changed.

There will be a rally at 1pm at the main car park in Abbots Wood.  We will then walk to Polegate station to return.

Trains leave Brighton at 10.52, Lewes at 11.09, London Victoria 9.47, Haywards Heath 10.35, Hastings 10.26, Eastbourne 11.04 Unless you are coming from Hastings or Eastbourne buy a return ticket to Polegate because that is where we will be ending up.

If you want to come by bus the Cuckmere Community bus leaves Seaford library at 10.42, with a connecting bus(12) from Brighton Churchill  Square at 9.53. There are frequent buses from Polegate to Eastbourne

Abbot’s Wood returns to its past glory - notes by Dave Bangs
Now, Abbot’s Wood is a hopeful place for nature. Sensitive large scale ancient woodland restoration work is being carried out by the Forestry Commission, whose flagship project has brought back Pearl-bordered Fritillary butterflies in grand numbers. This is, I think, one of only two sites where this butterfly survives in Sussex, though it used to be found in every ancient wood and many recent ones, too, till a few decades ago. We should see them on our walk. They are as pretty as their name implies.  Commission staff and contractors have worked hard, too, for Nightingale and Dormice populations and for the conservation of the rare Spiked Rampion flower in one of its best national locations. (It is confined to a scatter of East Sussex Wealden sites). The Wood’s display of Bluebells and Wood Anemones in spring and fungi in a good autumn are superb. 

It is a good place to be – and is getting better and better under its enlightened public management.

Back in 2004 whilst on a Mycological Society fungal foray there we heard a loud and joyous yelp from deep within some wet and tangled willows. After a few minutes an ecstatic expert fought his way out to tell us that he had just made the first national discovery of the Laquered Brittlecap, Russula laccata, for 20 years – and only the second British record…and it was a gorgeous thing, with an “amazingly glossy lacquered cap” like the stickiest blood-red lipstick.

Cuckoos were cuckooing and Green Woodpeckers yaffling on my last springtime visit, and Wood Ants were busy on the flowery and humid rides.
It made a depressing visit, though, as recently as twenty years ago, having suffered a truly dreadful half century of clearance and conifer planting from about 1941 to 1993, which destroyed the great majority of its semi-natural woodland cover. In its early years the Forestry Commission even sprayed the Hornbeam coppice with herbicide to facilitate clearance.  These horrors earned the Wood the ironic label of “a monument to the softwoods industry”.  Top Sussex lepidopterist Colin Pratt mournfully described it as “one of this country’s foremost woodlands, and its destruction (as) the greatest single tragedy that befell our woodland sites in the twentieth century”. Indeed, its recognition as a nationally important site – by designation as an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) in 1953 - pathetically lasted a mere 13 years, for, by 1966, its relentless coniferisation had made a no-go area for all its famous rarities…Lunar Double-stripe, Red-headed Chestnut, Scarce Dagger, The Alchemist, Dingy Mocha, Triangle, and many more fantastic moths and butterflies, such as Heath, High Brown and Marsh Fritillaries, and the now-nationally-extinct Black-veined White.
It didn’t get much worse than that.

We can’t blame the Forestry Commission for more than a part of this tragedy though, and it’s worth casting back across a millennium to see that previous feudal and early capitalist regimes wrought wave after wave of super exploitation upon these woods. It’s a miracle that enough survives to make restoration so worthwhile.

Back in the middle ages the Wood was called “Lindhersse”  - Lime Stubbles - indicating both that Small-leaved Lime was prominent, and that there was cultivation. Lime survives in the area, but only just, for it provides a very sweet bite, and centuries of woodland cattle browsing have rendered this once abundant tree very rare in Sussex nowadays.

It was a commoned wood back in those times, providing pasturage and autumn ‘pannage’ (of beech mast and acorns) for monks and commoners of Battle Abbey (hence the name ‘Abbot’s’) and other manors.

Later, in Tudor times, the wood was very heavily cut over, presumably at least in part to provide charcoal for the new iron industry. The sixteenth century was a time of much rapacious speculation, enclosure and clearance of woodland cover. Indeed, it is recorded that Abbot’s Wood was felled or cleared three times in one man’s lifetime. After 1560 there is no further mention of pannage in the court books of Alciston Manor, which owned the Wood. Abbot’s Wood was clearly at risk of suffering the same fate as St Leonard’s Forest, stripped of its woody cover.

It survived, though, as a mosaic of Hornbeam and Hazel coppice with Oak and Beech standards, and much Birch, together with more open, heathy areas . The pond in the middle is presumably the site of the chain of fish ponds which were managed for Battle Abbey.
When Victorian naturalists – brought by train - discovered the Wood it was a gorgeous, magical place. “Red Squirrels scampered across the treetops”. A maze of winding forest paths took one into all its secret places. Charcoal burners camped in its glades, amongst huge spreading Oaks. Ling and Bell Heather, Cow-wheat and Orpine were common, especially in the sunny open areas. Moths and butterflies were as abundant as on the plains of heaven. Using just the old technique of ‘sugaring’ (painting a sugary alcoholic treacle on the trunks of trees) one lepidopterist counted 20,000 moths of 134 species over just 8 consecutive nights !! Moths in their hundreds would congregate on single trunks. This record has never been exceeded in Sussex and is likely never to be repeated. Such abundance even drew one naturalist to speculate that the name White Fields (for the meadows in the Wood’s centre) came from the myriad Marbled Whites that fluttered there.

Let us not be too sad, though, for it will stop us recognising the need to defend the new and hopeful reality which the Wood now enjoys.

The Forestry Commission’s recent metamorphosis into a socially and ecologically responsible public agency demonstrates sharply the distinction between a form of nationalisation which primarily benefits the needs of private industry and one that meets the public’s needs. Very often under capitalism the potential of a publicly owned resource lies dormant for a long period before public pressure forces the state to release some of the resource’s latent public potential. Those countryside lovers from Brighton who successfully fought off the attempt by its Labour Council to privatise its 13,000 acres of public downland back in 1995 will recognize this. They had to keep up the pressure for more than ten further years before they secured a more progressive management policy, which realised part of the estate’s amenity and conservation potential. 

The Forestry Commission belongs to us all.

We must fight and stay vigilant to make sure that the gains we have finally made at Abbots Wood are truly permanent.
The Wood has seen a thousand years of attrition of its rich wildlife heritage. Let’s make sure that the government knows how determined we are to hold on to the progressive changes of the last twenty years, pioneered by our public forest estate.

Dave Bangs

 LITERARY NOTE. Those who have laughed at Cold Comfort Farm will recognise that Stella Gibbons nicked the name “Robert Poste’s child” from Robin Post Lane, the ancient swine pasture drove that traverses the Wood south to north. Ogg’s Wood, in the south eastern corner of Abbot’s Wood, is taken from the nickname that Victorian public school boys used for their headmaster at Eastbourne College.
walking and working for a people's countryside

Facebook  - "Downlanders -Action for Access"
walking and working for a people's countryside

Facebook  - "Downlanders -Action for Access"



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